John Smith picks up his secretary Cindy to drive her to work. It’s a short drive, about 20 feet from the gate off of Anna Avenue to the front door of Smith’s office. But it’s a slog. An 18-inch-deep pond full of rainwater makes it impassable for anyone without a large truck.
Thick mud borders the sides of the 30-foot-wide pool of muck. The pond forms with each rain. San Diego’s first winter storm of 2018, on January 8, was no different.
The flooding began shortly after San Diego Association of Governments (Sandag) temporarily acquired a portion of Smith’s property in 2015 to use as a staging area for the Mid-Coast Trolley Extension into La Jolla.
“We can’t really do anything about it,” Smith says a day after the rain stopped. “They’ve cut us off from any drainage. And even now that the rain is gone we can’t clean the place up because of the mud and standing water. I have to drive my secretary into the yard and she can’t leave the building all day unless someone ferries her to higher ground. Everything is just a complete pain in the ass.”
Smith purchased the property near the intersection of Friars Road and Pacific Coast Highway, a block north of the San Diego River and east of Interstate 5, in 2002. He then purchased two adjacent parcels in 2007 from the City of San Diego. As part of the purchase agreement, Smith would grade the land and install a drainage pipe leading out to the railroad easement that runs along the east side of his lot. It was an easy task, considering Smith’s company, Earthworks, specializes in grading and earth moving.
In July 2015 Sandag submitted their initial offer to acquire a portion of Smith’s property and use other land as a staging area for construction. Sandag agreed to pay Smith $100,000 to temporarily relocate some of his equipment as well as remove four palm trees.
In response, Smith delayed laying the drainage pipe to see the impacts of Sandag’s project.
Smith looked at the plans and noticed that the drainage pipe he had planned to put in was cut off by a large concrete wall.
“I was dumbfounded. They had completely ignored drainage from [Pacific Coast Highway] as well as the grade on my property. It was totally unbelievable. They didn’t seem to know what they were doing from one day to the next.”
Smith says he told them about the pipe but Sandag wasn’t listening. “They care more about the ribbon-cutting than they do anything else,” he says. “They didn’t listen to me. Why should they?”
Shortly after taking over the property, Sandag began moving large amounts of dirt, forming a mound along Smith’s property line that he shared with the railroad tracks.
Sandag then poured a large concrete wall — what Smith calls a concrete dam — that blocks water from flowing into the old trench in between the two properties. Now, as each storm arrives, crews watch the water flow down, into the city’s right-of-way, and onto Smith’s driveway, into his maintenance shop, and up to the front doorstep of his office.
“This was just a small rain,” he adds. “But, we’re all still out here walking around in rubber boots, tracking mud and muck everywhere.”
Smith estimates that he’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars between hiring attorneys and consultants to try and force Sandag to act.
In December of last year, Smith filed a lawsuit against Sandag and the city.
Reads the lawsuit, “…SANDAG’s water study was defective because it failed to consider any of the drainage west of the railroad track. As such, the drainage facilities planned were inadequate to handle all of the water that needed to be drained, including the storm-water flow and broken pipe flow from Anna Avenue. While SANDAG represented that it was going to help solve the drainage problem, it in fact intended to make it far worse.”
Smith’s frustration about having to sue and spend more money can be heard in the tone of his voice when he says, “There’s absolutely nothing to show for all that money, except for this pond on my property and the lawsuit in court.”
Jim Linthicum is Sandag’s director of mobility and in charge of program implementation. He says taxpayers should not be held responsible for Smith’s problem.
Linthicum says that the property is lower than the surrounding streets and water has never had anywhere to go. “It ponds where it ponds and has done so as long as anyone can remember,” says Linthicum.
“Smith wants the public to fix his property for him. Sandag’s position is that the flooding is not a result of the project. And, nothing that we’ve done, or, will do prohibits him from solving this.”
The program manager says that before Sandag took the property he had asked Smith for solutions, which he would have carried out if they could do so at no cost. “We never received anything.”
Michael Pallamary is a land-use consultant who has worked for Smith on the drainage issue.
He says Sandag set aside $13 million to move utilities at the property in order to make room for the new trolley line. Pallamary says drainage and sewage is a utility and should be included.
Smith made a number of submittals, as did Sandag, says Pallamary in a January 14 interview. “They put the offer on the table and then removed it. This is what they did repeatedly. These were calculated delay tactics.”
As for Linthicum’s contention that the flooding is Smith’s problem and not the taxpayers’, Pallamary disagrees. “The problem is a city problem. The flooding occurs in a publicly dedicated street. John was willing to fix the problem working with the city. It was understood that the drain would be installed in the railroad right-of-way. Everything was going fine until Sandag changed the design.”
But more problems over the flooding and Sandag’s response to it have occurred at the site.
On Wednesday, January 10th, investigators from the state water board submitted a complaint to the city and Sandag after they discovered crews were pumping runoff directly onto Pacific Coast Highway.
Linthicum said he was notified of the illegal pumping.
“Our contractor had a new foreman on the job, and that foreman pumped the water in the wrong direction and as soon as anyone found out we stopped it immediately,” Linthicum said.